What are the advantages of ‘organic’ foods?

David Miliband recently said “there isn’t any evidence either way that’s conclusive” as to the health benefits of ‘organic’ foods, which was picked up on by much of the media. It seems to be something people feel very strongly about, and ‘organic’ foods are now pretty much synonymous with ‘healthy eating’ in day to day life. It’s all rather strange, though. The more I see about the ‘organic’ industry, the more it seems to mix reasonable arguments about sensible farming methods with scaremongering, plus more than a hint of anti-science sentiment and outright paranoia.

My friend Lil is the most knowledgeable person I know when it comes to environmental issues, and after I commented on her post on the organic industry she sent over a report detailing the many advantages of organic farming as regards wildlife conservation. From a lay-person’s perspective it seemed compelling, and I trust Lil and her environmental science degree when she tells me it makes sense 🙂 I also know people who swear organic foods taste better, and it’s entirely possible they do, although there are plenty of variables and biases and it’s hard to find double-blind taste tests with evidence either way. That’s being incredibly picky, though, and if these positive points were all ‘organic’ meant I’d have no problem with it and would be happy to pay extra.

Unfortunately, ‘organic’ comes with a load of baggage attached, the most prevalent of which is the assumed evil of fertilisers and their associated health risks. The industry regularly points out the levels of pesticides found in ‘conventional’ foods, and plenty of people have said to me things like ‘I don’t see how they can’t be bad for you’. Industry responses to David Miliband are the same:

Pete Glanville, secretary of the Shetland Organic Producers Group, which farms vegetables and sheep, said: “You only have to look at the list of things that goes into creating lots of things to realise just how much we are not putting into our bodies by eating organic.”

Liz Lawrence, from the website faceofflowers.com, which specialises in organic produce said: “Organic produce is the only legally guaranteed food that you know what you’re getting, you know there’s no chemicals in there.

“To sell organic produce you have to be registered and you’re inspected very thoroughly.”

They both want me to assume that ‘chemicals’ are bad for my health. But, why should I? It’s not like this hasn’t occurred to people before, and been studied appropriately. I’m going to trust the reports of the European Food Safety Authority and DEFRA far more than I am the vague gut instincts that admittedly arise when I hear that food has been sprayed with chemicals designed to keep away pests. Pesticides are heavily regulated and subject to continual testing and safety review, and I’ve seen nothing from the ‘organic’ industry giving me any reason to ignore the results of proper inquiry other than ‘some pesticides might turn out to be bad for you’.

You could perhaps make a case that if ‘organic’ foods have no risk from pesticides, and ‘conventional’ has only a very small one, it’s still more reasonable to go with the former. However, ‘organic’ farming can still use pesticides, only they have to be ‘natural’. There’s no reason ‘natural’ pesticides should be any better for the environment than ‘synthetic’ pesticides1, and they are just as heavily regulated, yet we don’t hear how much ‘natural’ pesticide residue is left on organic foods. And then there’s this, from a report by a University of Edinburgh biochemist:

Plants synthesise an estimated 10,000 chemicals whose function is to kill or deter insect pests and occasionally larger herbivores. These natural pesticides are found in all fruit and vegetables; when tested at MTD they prove to be equally as damaging as synthetic pesticides (Ames and Gold, 1999, 2000). Furthermore the daily consumption of natural pesticides or carcinogens outweighs the traces of synthetic pesticides consumed by the public by many thousands to one. Mankind has always been exposed to ‘‘dangerous’’ chemicals and since many current crops have only recently been used as food and are also the result of extensive plant breeding, the kinds of natural chemical to which we are now exposed is too recent to allow for biological evolution to have ensured safe consumption (Ames and Gold, 1999).

The pesticide issue feels like scaremongering, and I don’t think it helps anyone to idly discard the extensive scientific knowledge of this area in favour of gut reactions. ‘Organic’ foods also trumpet the lack of genetic modification, which is equally dubious in my view, but that’s a whole other post. I’m loathe to give money to an industry that promotes and possibly thrives on these attitudes, which is to the detriment of the probably beneficial environmental aspects.

I’ve been trying to read up on the subject, and there are a crazy number of variables. Supporting local farms may be considered an advantage, but if you buy from a supermarket it’s estimated that 70% of food labelled ‘organic’ is flown in from abroad, which must have environmental consequences. It’s also claimed that ‘organic’ farms treat their animals better than ‘conventional’ farms, which sounds good, and that they aren’t given growth hormones which are also apparently bad for humans – I haven’t even tried to dig into this claim. There are so many pros, cons, claims and counter-claims that I don’t know how anybody could reasonably decide whether it’s worth the extra cost.

It’s all a little murky, and at times has an air of cash cow while throwing up red flags of pseudoscience. I’d much rather buy something with a specific advantage in the same way as free-range eggs than risk supporting goofy nonsense, but then I feel like the positive aspects are going unrewarded. Lil says that it’s the specific management criteria of the farms that’s important in terms of environmental impact, not ‘organic’ versus ‘conventional’, and that seems to be one of the few sensible conclusions it’s possible to draw.

(edit: tidied up a couple of dodgy constructions)

  1. possibly less so, given that synthetic ones will be designed for a purpose, but admittedly I can’t back this up []